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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Moon Rock By Arthur J. Rees Characters: 14335

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Barrant found the inn at the dark end of a stone alley, with the sound of tipsy singing and shuffling feet coming through the half-open door. He made his way up three granite steps into a side-entrance, catching a glimpse through a glass partition of shaggy red faces and pint pots floating in a fog of tobacco smoke. A stout landlord leaned behind the bar watching his customers with the tolerant smile of a man who was making a living out of their merriment. He straightened himself as he caught sight of Barrant, and opened the sliding window. The detective inquired about the wagonette, and learnt that it had not yet arrived.

"The roouds is rough, and old Garge Crows takes his time," said the landlord, eyeing Barrant with a heavy stare. "'Tain't as thow 'e had a passel of passergers to be teeren rownd after."

"Can you give me some supper while I'm waiting?"

"Sooper?" The innkeeper scratched his chin doubtfully. "'Tis late in the ebenin' to be getting sooper. There's nawthing greut in the howse. You could 'ave some tay-p'raps an egg."

"That will do."

The innkeeper roared forth a summons, which was answered by a rugged Cornish lass from the kitchen. She cast a doubtful glance on the young man when she learnt what was required, and took him into a small sitting-room, where she left him to gaze at his leisure upon a framed portrait of Cecil Rhodes, a stuffed gannet in a large glass case, and a stuffed badger in a companion case on the other side of the wall. In about twenty minutes she returned with a tray, and placed before the detective a couple of eggs, some bread and butter, saffron cake, and a pot of tea. The eggs were of peculiar mottled exterior, and when tasted had such a strong fish-like flavour as to suggest that they might have been laid by the gannet in its lifetime, and stowed away by a careful Cornish housewife until some stranger chanced to visit that remote spot. Barrant was hungry enough to gulp them down, though with a wry face. He had just finished a second cup of very strong tea when he heard the clatter of a vehicle outside, and the girl thrust a tousled dark head through the door to announce the arrival of Mr. Crows and his wagonette.

Barrant paid for his food and went out. An ancient hooded vehicle filled the narrow way, drawn by a large shaggy horse which turned a gleaming eye on the detective as he emerged, and snorted loudly, as though resenting the prospect of having to drag his additional weight back to the town. The driver sat motionless on the box, watching the caperings of the tipsy tin-miners through the half-open door: a melancholy death'shead of a man, with a preternaturally long white face, and a figure shrouded in a dark cloak, looking as though he might be Death itself, waiting for the carousers to drop dead of apoplexy before carrying them off in his funereal equipage. In reply to Barrant's question he informed him that the vehicle was destined for Penzance, and immediately the detective entered the dark interior he drove off with disconcerting suddenness, as though he had been waiting for him only, and was determined to make sure of him before he had time to escape.

The shaggy horse lumbered forward at an unwilling trot, like an animal disillusioned with life. Soon they cleared the churchtown and entered the darkness of the moors. A long and tiring day disposed Barrant to slumber. He had begun to nod sleepily when the wagonette stopped with a jerk which shook him into wakefulness. He was able to make out that they had reached the highest elevation of the moors-the cross-roads from where Inspector Dawfield had shown him Flint House in the distance that afternoon. He could just discern the outlines of the wayside cross and the old Druidical monolith, both pointing to the silent heavens in unwonted religious amity.

"Good ebenen', Garge." A lusty voice hailed out of the darkness, and then Barrant was aware of somebody entering the wagonette, a large male body which plumped heavily on his knees as it started again.

"Bed pardin, I'm sure. Aw dedn't knaw Crows had another passenger to-night." A husky voice spoke unseen. "'Taint often it 'appens." There was the splutter of a match, and as it flared up Barrant saw a pair of twinkling grey eyes regarding him from a brown and rugged face. "Old Garge never reckons on haavin' passengers back by th' laast wagonette, so 'e never lights up inside. I'll make a light now, then we'll be more comfortable." He struck another match and lit the candle in the wagonette lamp, and was revealed to Barrant's eyes as a stout and pleasant-faced man of fifty or so, with something seamanlike, or at least boatmanlike, in his appearance. He gave the detective a smile and a nod, and added, "Old Crows is fullish mean about candles."

"It's a wonder he drives the wagonette at all, if there is no demand for it," remarked Barrant.

"Aw, there's a'plenty demand for it-always lots of passergers except by this one," rejoined the man in the blue suit. "You'd be surprised how people gets about in these paarts." He was studying the detective's face with interest. "You be a Londoner," he said quickly. "What braught you down here?"

"How do you know that I'm a Londoner?" said Barrant, parrying the latter part of the question.

"I can tell a Londoner at once," returned the other.

"'Twould be straange if I couldn't. I'm Peter Portgartha. P'raps you haven't heard of me, but I'm well known hereabouts, and if you want to see any of the sights, you'd best coome to me, and I'll show you round."

"A guide, eh?"

"There be guides and guides. I'll say nathin' about th' others, but there's nobody knaws this part of Cornwall like me. I was born and bred and knaw every inch of it. Before the waar I've had London ladies say to me: "Ave you ever seen the Bay of Naples, or the Canaries? Oh, you should see them, Mr. Portgartha, they're ever so much more grand than Cornwall.' Well, while the war was on I did see the Canaries and Bay of Naples at Government's expense on a minesweeper, and they're not a patch on the Cornwall coast. There's nathin' to beat it in the world."

"It's good, is it?" said Barrant, with his accustomed affability to strangers. "If I want to see any of it I'll get you to show me round."

"Just came along to th' Mousehole and ask for Peter Portgartha. There's a great cave at the Mouse's Hole-that's what we call it hereabouts, that ain't to be beaten in the whole world. If your good lady's here, bring her with you to see it. There ain't nobody else can show it to her like I can. The London ladies don't like goin' down the Mousehole cave as a rule, because it's a stiffish bit of a climb, and in the holiday season there's always a lot of raffish young fellows hangin' round to see the ladies go down-to see what they can see, you knaw. But I never 'ave no accidents like that. No bold-eyed young chap ever saw the leg of any lady in my charge-not so much as the top of a boot, because I knaw how to taake them down. I'm well known to some of the 'ighest ladies in the land because I 'ev been aable to take care of their legs when they were goin' down. I've had

letters from them thaankin' me. You've no idea how grateful they be."

This startling instance of the stern morality of aristocratic womanhood was unfortunately wasted on Barrant, whose thoughts had reverted to the principal preoccupation of his mind. Mr. Portgartha rambled on.

"Aw, but it's strange to be meetin' you like this, in old Garge's wagonette. For twelve months I've been goin' acrass the moors to see a sister of mine, who's lonely, poor saul, havin' lost her man in the war-drawned in a drifter 'e was-and catchin' this wagonette back every night, with never a saul to speak to, until last night. Last night there was a passerger, and to-night there's you. Tes strange, come to think of it." He looked hard at Barrant as if for some confirmatory expression of surprise at this remarkable accession to the wagonette's fares. He waited so long that Barrant felt called upon to say something.

"Who was your fellow passenger last night?"

"Now you're asking me a question which takes a bit of answerin'," replied Mr. Portgartha. "'Twas like this. I was waitin' at the crass-roads for old Garge to come along, when a young womon came up out of th' darkness and stood not far from me-just by the ol' crass. I tried to maake out who she was, but it was too daark. So I just says to her, 'Good ebenin', miss, are you waitin' for the wagonette too?' She never answered a word, and before I could think of anything else to say old Garge came along, and we both got in. She sat in a corner, silent as a ghooste. Well, then, I went to light th' lamp, same as I have to-night, but as luck would 'ave it, I hadn't a match. I knaw it was no use askin' old Garge, 'cos he'd pretend not to hear, so I turned to the young womon sittin' opposite, and asked her if she had a match in her pocket. And do you knaw, I declare to gudeness she never said nawthen, not so much as a word!"

"Perhaps she was dumb?" Barrant suggested.

"Aw, iss, doomb enough then," retorted Mr. Portgartha. "I tried her two or three times more, but couldn't get a word out of her. Well, at last I began to get narvous, thinkin' she might be a sperit. So I leant across to her an' says, 'Caan't you say a word, miss? It's only Peter Portgartha speaking, he's well known for his respect for your sect. No young womon need be frightened of speakin' to Peter Portgartha.' And with that she spaaks at last, with a quick little gasp like a sob-I'm thinking I can hear it at this minute-'Aw,' she says, 'why caan't you leave me alone?' 'Never be afraaid,' I says, for I have my pride like other folk, 'I'll say no more. Peter Portgartha has no need to foorce his conversation where it ain't welcome.'"

"A strange girl!" said Barrant, beginning to feel an interest in the story. "Have you no idea who she was?"

"Wait a bit," continued Mr. Portgartha, evidently objecting to any intrusion on his right, as narrator, to a delayed climax. "Well, there we sat, like two ghoostes, till we got to Penzance, but all the time I was thinkin' to mysel' that I'd find out who she was. I sed to myself I'd ride on to the station, instid of gettin' out a piece this side of it so as to make a short cut across to the Mouse's Hole, as I usually do. But that stupid old fule Garge pulled up as usual and bawls through the window, 'Are you going to keep me here all night, Peter?' Before I could say a word the young womon says: 'I'll get out here.' With that she puts the fare into his hand through the open window, and slips out afore I knew what she was going to do. If it hadn't been for my rhoomatics, which I got in the war, I'd 'a followed her. As it was, I couldn't."

"So you didn't see her face, after all?" asked Barrant quickly.

"I didn't, in a manner of speakin'. But I did get a glimpse of her as she passed near the lamp-post-just a half-sight of two big dark eyes in a white face as she went past. I wouldn't 'a thought no more of it," added Mr. Portgartha, laying an impressive hand on his companion's knee, "but for what happened at Flint House last night."

"What's that got to do with it?" In his quickened interest Barrant vainly strove to make his voice appear calm.

"Because the young womon must have coome from Flint House."

Barrant scrutinized his companion sharply in the dim light. "Why do you think so?" he asked.

"For'n thing, the wayside crass where she picked up the wagonette is not far from Flint House by acrass the moors-closer'n goin' from the house on the cliffs t' the churchtown, which is a good slant to the north of it. From Flint House to the crass-roads it's straight as a dart, if you know yer way, with only one house twixt it till you come arver to it-old Farmer Bardsley, who ain't got no wemmenfolk, so it's sartin she didn't come from theer. She wasn't a maa'iden from any of the farms of the moors, for I know them all. But it weren't till this marning that I got a kind of notion who she was. I dropped into the Tolpen Arms to have a drop of something for a cawld I've got, and some of the fishermen were talkin' about th' old gentleman of Flint House blowing his head off last night with a gun. It made me feel queery-like when I heerd aboot it. 'Why,' I says, 'that'll be about the time I saw the strange young womon in ol' Crows' wagonette. She must 'ave come from Flint House, now I coome to think of it.' 'What young woman was that?' asked 'Enery Waitts. So I told them what had happened to me, just like I've told it to you. Mrs. Keegan, the land-lady, who was list'ning, says, 'I shouldn't be surprised if it was Mr. Turold's daughter that you saw. I heard yesterday that his sister was staying at Penzance, so p'raps she was going to her, after it happened. So if it was her it's not surprisin' she didn't want to speak to you in her grief.'"

"Did you ever see Miss Turold?"

"I've never see any one of the Flint House folk, though I've heerd of them, often enough."

"Did you notice in which direction this girl went?"

"No. She passed the lamp-post as if she were maakin' up Market Jew Street, but I suppose she ced 'ave turned off anywhere to the right or left."

"What time was it when the wagonette reached the cross-roads on the moor, where she got in?"

"About the same time as to-night, getting on for ten, mebbe."

"She was quite alone?"

"As lonely as any she ghooste, standin' theer by the old crass. 'Twaas because I thought she'd feel feersome that I spoke to her."

Barrant relapsed into a thoughtful silence which lasted until the wagonette pulled up and his fellow-traveller prepared to alight. Then he turned to him and said-

"Good-night. I may see you again."

He fumbled at the interior window as he spoke, opened it, and touched the driver on the shoulder. "Drive me to the Central Hotel," he said. "Go as fast as you can, and I'll give you ten shillings!"

Mr. Crows nodded a cold acquiescence, and they rattled off down the silent street, leaving on Barrant's mind a receding impression of a startled red face staring after them from the footpath. The wagonette jolted round a corner, and ten minutes later stopped at the entrance of the hotel where Mrs. Pendleton was staying.

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